Zarif Hits Back

by Farideh Farhi

Speaking to CNN during the World Economic Forum in Davos this week Foreign Minister Javad Zarif got personal.

He chided the US president, though he only named the “the White House”, for playing fast and loose with facts.

The White House version of the first-phase deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 in November both “underplays concessions” to Iran and “overplays Iranian commitments,” he said.

Zarif also subtly reminded viewers that it was only the White House that produced an English and Persian rendition of the accord, which it called a “Fact Sheet,” and immediately distributed it after the deal was signed rather than the text of the Joint Agreement.

“Why don’t we stick to what we agreed? Why do we need to produce different texts?” he asked.

Prodded to give a specific example of the differing interpretations Zarif referred to the term “dismantling,” which he said has become part of US “terminology” on the deal.

“The White House is trying to portray [the deal] as basically the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program,” but nothing even resembling dismantling is in text, he said. He challenged, “show me” a single word that even resembles dismantling or could be identified as such.

The Iranian negotiators and most Iranian politicians have been rather patient with the narrative that both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been using to frame the interim accord.

A couple of politicians, such as conservative MP Ahmad Tavakoli, who runs the influential Alef website, initially even reasoned that the narrative is for US domestic consumption. A similar argument was made by the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, which is an interesting inversion of US discourse regarding Iranian domestic politics; suddenly it was the US President who had to play loose with facts in order to placate the hardliners in his country while maintaining the support of his flank.

But the repeated assertions and renditions of how little Iranians are getting in exchange for the “dismantling” of their nuclear program is turning into a headache for the Foreign Ministry.

While the hardline cries of surrender and “nuclear holocaust” can be ignored, the notion that the Iranian negotiators may be hiding extra concessions that they have not revealed to the Iranian public and the Parliament cannot.

On Wednesday, there were reports that 150 MPs had written a letter to Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani objecting to the “lack of detailed information” regarding the Joint Agreement. Ruhollah Hosseinian, a hardliner opposed to any kind of deal with the US, took the lack of information tack and objected to the negotiation team’s “hiding of facts.” He added that the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action does not serve Iran’s interest and will lead to the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program in its entirety.

Meanwhile, Iran’s senior negotiator Abbas Araghchi has been spending quite a bit of his time in Parliament arguing otherwise — to no avail. A few MPs keep saying that they are not satisfied with the Foreign Ministry’s explanations, probably causing him further trips to the legislative body.

In response, government spokesman Mohammad-Baqer Nobakht made clear that the Foreign Ministry remains fully in charge of the nuclear negotiations and rejected pretenses by various hardliners that some sort of oversight committee has been created because certain elements of the agreements are even worrisome to Leader Ali Khamenei — an assertion that prompted Afkham to demand “substantiation.” In fact, the critical MPs have so far been unable to create an oversight committee even within the Parliament. Still, this hasn’t stopped the many speculations and declarations regarding the hidden aspects of the Joint Agreement that fit better with the White House narrative. Araghchi and Zarif will undoubtedly have to keep explaining.

This headache is shared by the chief of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, who entered the fray last week by explaining that 20 percent enrichment is no longer needed, no facility has been closed, research on centrifuges continues and so does some construction at the Arak nuclear plant. On Wednesday he also had to deny publicly that he had written a letter to Khamenei criticizing aspects of the agreement.

One could argue that Zarif’s statements to CNN regarding Iran’s commitment — merely stopping the enrichment of uranium beyond 5% and zero dismantling — is payback; he is simply doing to Obama and Kerry what they are doing to him. Of course, he is also well aware of the way Iranian domestic politics impact pronouncements by Iranian politicians. After months of talking about the need for a “win-win scenario” for the resolution of the nuclear imbroglio, Zarif must have cringed when he heard President Hassan Rouhani declare the surrender of Iran’s negotiating partners last week. Regardless, Zarif’s approach to political haggling remains more understated and less pretentious.

Rightly or wrongly, Zarif is a believer in the power of international law and signed agreements; that’s why wrangling over a few words seriously endangered the success of the Geneva deal. His call for the Obama administration to avoid fact sheets and rely on the text of the Joint Plan of Action derives from this belief.

He can accordingly be seen as naïve or not cognizant of the privilege US politicians assume in only considering their own politics and being oblivious to the impact their words have on other countries. Or, he could just be displaying his ability to play the same game if the other side continues to ignore the Rouhani administration’s domestic predicament.

Zarif wants US officials to stop talking as though the Iranian side of the Geneva deal is not in the room. After all, the US government has invested sufficiently in Persian-language broadcasting to ensure that every single word uttered by US officials also reaches Iranian ears. Of course, getting what he wants is highly unlikely.

Photo Credit: ISNA/Mohsen Ghaemi

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.



  1. The White House obviously is spinning, to help quell opposition to a deal with Iran that could end the nuclear dispute.

  2. Spin. Goodness, if there were grownups in the room, would there be these kinds of issues? For the U.S. part, there are too many chefs stirring the pot, as for Iran, perhaps the same applies. Sure don’t envy these politicians for the job they have bought, in traversing this mine field, to a safe conclusion, if that’s possible. Can’t say we weren’t warned about this beforehand. Hope it doesn’t fall apart, for everyone’s sake, even the Israelis.

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